So MLS players and fans, is it worth striking over?

So most of us in our lives have had several jobs, for me I have many in several different fields in several different states and for varying lengths of time.  As I think about what MLS players face it really does seem as if the current system (unique from almost every other sports league in the world) is horribly wrong.  Even in this day of NDA’s and No Compete clauses, the following simply would not be acceptable to any worker, so there is no reason why MLS players should have to deal with scenarios like this:

Imagine that you were working at company A but you really wanted to go to work for company B, but you could only do that if company A said you could and company B was willing to give company A something in return, and then that could only happen if company C agreed to let it happen.  Or if you were working at company A and they decided they didn’t want you as an employee anymore so they let you go, you found another company that wanted to hire you but if they were in the same industry in the same country that company A had to agree to let you work there, would again want some type of compensation and again company C would have to approve it.  Now you could leave the country and go work for company D, but if you ever came back to the US and wanted to work for company B, you would still need the permission of company A, who would probably want some type of compensation and you would need to involve company C.  Of course all of this is subjective to if company C wants those rules to apply or not, you could find that company C wants you to work for company E and while you don’t want to work for them, your ability to choose is limited to what company C decides.

MLS was formed using a single entity, in part so owners could partner together to minimized potential losses and in larger part to allow for controlled costs.  As players were signed, they were signed by MLS who then determined or approved where that player would play and to be honest that probably was needed in 1996 and was probably still needed 10 years later, but since 2005 the league has grown, expansion teams, new DP level contracts and now heading into the 20th season the league is in a very different position.  The players know this, they have had enough of Don Garber claiming the league and teams are $100 million in debt while the league had no problem shelling out over $30 million in transfer fees and salaries for just 2 players last year, or in a season when two new teams that paid more than $150 million combined to join the league, or in a year that will see the start of their new much more financially rewarding TV deal.  So when Don and others step up on their soapboxes against Free Agency saying it would drive up salaries, everyone rolls their eyes.  See Don and the owners have had no problem spending huge amounts of money for their big name DP’s so the average salary has climbed in response to that, but the reality is rather simple.

First, the reality is that 1/3 of the players in MLS last year made $60,000 or less, that is 189 players that collectively made under $9,000,000 last year, while the top 14 players in the league made just over $49,000,000 last year.  So if Free Agency would cause the salaries of the 348 players that made under $125,000 last year to go up, so be it, you could double all of their salaries and it would still not equal what the top 14 guys made last year. If you say the money isn’t there, then your league is in real trouble and perhaps you should just shut it down, because if you can’t pay a fair wage to professional athletes that are your league, well you have bigger issues than Free Agency.

Second, is the right to have a say in your own career, in your own destiny.  The situation today in MLS is fairly laughable, let’s look back a couple years ago to when Seattle cut Leone Cruz and sent him home without a job.  RSL was interested but even though Cruz was cut by Seattle, RSL couldn’t just sign him, nope they had to work out a trade with Seattle which of course MLS had to approve in order for Cruz to sign with RSL.  In the long run it didn’t work out, but it was the reality of a situation where one team didn’t want a player but another team in the league couldn’t sign him.  Things get even more odd if you think about Robbie Findley, who after leaving RSL and MLS for a shot of playing in Europe, had his rights taken in an expansion draft by Portland.  When RSL wanted to sign him before the 2013 season they had to trade to get his rights back from Portland, despite the fact that Robbie had been out of MLS for 3 seasons.   If a player like Yura Movsisyan wanted to come back to MLS and play for any team other than RSL, that team would have to acquire his rights, despite him having been out of MLS for 5 years.  Of course MLS can and has overwritten these rules when it serves their best interest.

It was funny about a week ago listening to Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen do an interview on local radio and mention the fact that a big part of why MLS owners are doing whatever they can to stop Free Agency from coming to MLS is the fact that many own other professional sports teams where they have to deal with it on a regular basis.  To me it is interesting that so many blame it for salaries going up but every league in the US has a salary cap to control those costs, so what it really seems like to me is that as a sports team owner you don’t want to have to compete with other owners for the players you have invested in.  I get that teams often put a lot of money into younger players and hope they turn out to be stars, so to lose them so quickly can be painful, but there is an easy solution to this, pay them what they are worth.  If you don’t think a player is worth $500,000 a year but some other team does, then let them pay that and you find a player for what you are willing to spend.  To hold back a player in that situation can do nothing but turn them into a problem in the locker room and likely spread a negative attitude around the locker room, heck we have seen that happen with players in MLS before and I am sure we will see it again.

For 20 years MLS and the owners have been able to convince the players that there just isn’t enough money to be made off soccer in the US to allow for higher salaries (the last CBA had a salary cap that went up (5%) less than the mandated wage increases for players (5-15%) which forced teams to turn over players on a fairly regular basis.  When Real Salt Lake joined MLS the expansion fee paid to join the league was $5 million dollars, LAFC paid over $100 million, NYCFC paid $100 million, Orlando paid about $65-75 million.  Even when the small market Columbus Crew were sold their club value was over $65 million dollars, I have heard rumors that RSL was valued about $70 million dollars in total.  Well when the league and owners ponied up over $30 million in transfer fees last year for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Defoe, and paid them another $12 million plus in salaries I think the “there isn’t enough money” argument went out the window.  When you add in that MLS also bypassed their own allocation order for players like Bradley, Dempsey, and Jermaine Jones, the reality is they allowed Free Agency to creep in, so why shouldn’t non-Mega DP players feel that if those players have a right to choose and pick where they want to play and to go for the biggest paycheck being offered, they should have that right as well?
I do get that owners have pumped tens of millions of dollars into MLS over the last 20 years and for a long time they saw next to nothing returned to them, it is easy to understand why some of those original owners would now want to start cashing in on that investment.  The way to do that isn’t to sacrifice the future by now going cheap, if it is too much for you to bear then sell, the value of MLS franchises is higher than it has ever been.  If you can’t compete with owners like those in Seattle, LA, or Toronto willing to open up their wallets to pay (and yes sometimes overpay for players) well then the league has passed you by and should cash out while you can.  It is the owners who put Don Garber on a path to be make the league “ a top league in the world” by 2020, a mere 5 years away and keeping the salary cap growing at just 5% per year and not allowing players to have some control of their own destiny isn’t going to get you there.

It was interesting to read some folks commenting saying now isn’t the time for the players to strike, there is too much on the table with 2 new teams joining the league, a new TV deal starting up, but the reality for the players is that this may be too perfect of a time to not leverage these things to their advantage.  You don’t want to go on strike when nobody is paying attention, oh no you want 65,000 fans in Orlando being upset that their opening day match isn’t taking place, you want the heads of Univision, Fox Sports and ESPN calling and screaming about having to adjust their schedules due to cancelled matches.  Now I don’t believe for a minute that players want to strike, but I do believe they are willing to do so, to put their careers on hold and at risk in order to ensure that they and future generations of players have some of the same basic rights at other professional athletes and workers everywhere.

4 years ago I supported the players but I thought their choice of how to make their case to the public wasn’t the best to draw support to their cause.  Now I find myself even more supporting the players, and when you have so many players current and past giving multiple examples of how the lack of Free Agency have limited their careers it is easy for me to support their right to strike in order to make some fundamental changes to how MLS is run. I hope it doesn’t happen but at this point I expect to see perhaps a couple weeks of the season lost due to a work stoppage of some sort.

That’s How I See It

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